The Swamp of Subjective Sentimentality

Americans are so caught up in subjective sentimentalism that they can no longer think straight.

(photo: Cocoparisienne/Anja/Pixabay/CC0)

A friend commented about the LGBTQ controversy recently. He has family members who are homosexual and they are furious with the Catholic Church, saying, “Who are they to define marriage?”

In discussing the problem we observed that most Americans are now so swamped by subjective sentimentalism that they cannot conceive of someone having moral values that are given by an outside source of authority.

There are two different manifestations of this subjective sentimentalism, but first I ought to explain what I mean. Subjectivism is having one’s thoughts, moral decisions and relationships determined solely by their effect on oneself. I become the judge of all things because there is no other agreed, external authority.

Sentimentalism is that frame of mind which is determined not by thought or logic or any kind of reasoning at all, but purely by emotion and personal feelings. These feelings can be warm and fuzzy or they can be harsh and angry, but both are still expressions of sentimentalism.

Sentimentalism and subjectivism are both caused by not having an agreed external authority and by an underlying philosophical position of relativism. If relativism is true, then there is not only no agreed external authority, but there is also no such thing as truth — and of course, if there is no such thing as truth, then there can be no such thing as logic or reasoning in any way. If there is no logic or reasoning, then one is left only with one’s emotions as ways of making decisions and judgements.

Americans are now so caught up in subjective sentimentalism that they can’t think straight — because there is nothing left to think about.

They can’t obey or disobey because there is no authority or authoritative code to obey or disobey.

All they can do is make up their own course of action and respond irrationally according to their emotions.

But of course, without any logic or reasoning, and going only on one’s emotions, one doesn’t quite know how to decide on difficult questions. Therefore one is very open to suggestion, propaganda, emotional appeals and radical emotive reactions.

What we have now, therefore, is a nation of adolescents. This is what adolescents do. They have broken away enough from the authority figures to go into a subjective, sentimental rebellious reaction. Thrown about by their highly fluctuating emotions and being vulnerable to peer pressure and crowd control tactics, they are headstrong, irrational teenagers having a little fit on the one hand or falling head over heels in silly, gushy emotional reactions on the other.

This subjective sentimentality can surface in a sweet way or a sour way. 

The sweet way seems to be all goodness and happiness, light and peace. It is full of “Awwww!” emotions, just being kind and good and nice and tolerant to everyone.

The second way it surfaces is sour. Someone disagrees with the subjective sentimentalist and they condemn them. They scapegoat them. They hand them over and hang them out to dry. This sour subjective sentimentalism can be expressed by conservatives who have made their conservative moral choices without any agreed authority, or by liberals who do the same. Both condemn the other side, blame the other side and hate the other side because both kinds can only respond with raw emotion — never with a sound argument, reason or logic.

This subjective sentimentalism underlies a whole range of different debates in the Church and society in general. Subjective sentimentalism may prevail in debates about police brutality, racism, injustice, the environment, sexual roles, economics, politics … you name it.

Therefore, in the present debate over same-sex marriage, for example, Americans simply cannot comprehend that Catholics operate according to a different set of systems. We believe that same-sex acts and same-sex marriage are wrong, not primarily because we think such things are “yucky” and not because we “hate gays” or because we want to tell them they are all going to hell.

In other words, we don’t think these things are wrong for sentimental subjective reasons. We think they are wrong for rational, objective reasons.

We believe they are wrong for reasons that we can explain and outline clearly. Furthermore, we can believe they are wrong while still accepting homosexual people, not judging them and allowing them into our lives. We can believe they are wrong while also acknowledging that homosexual people have many gifts, are capable of great human achievement, human love and many other good things.

The subjective sentimentalist cannot work this out and will not believe it is possible.

He thinks we're are pulling a fast one. He thinks we are lying because to disapprove of an action or lifestyle, for him, is to disapprove of the person and to condemn them.

The underlying problem and impasse is one, therefore, that has its roots in an essential philosophical problem.

In other words, “What you believe affects how you behave” — or in Hilaire Belloc’s re-wording, “Every argument is a theological argument.”


Fr Longenecker’s latest book Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness examines the root causes of rage in our society at a deep level (